Why I Prefer Collecting Antiques and Collectibles with a Story

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The move from a 14,000 square foot building, the former Vera Cruz (PA) Elementary School, to a 2,800 square foot home in Kentwood, Michigan, forced me to sell approximately two-thirds of the antiques and collectibles I acquired over 50 years of saving and collecting. The decision of what to sell and what not to sell, especially when it involved a family heirloom, was difficult. Every object had a story attached. Fortunately or unfortunately, I remembered most of them.

Objects become personalized when associated with a story. An acquisition story is the most common. An acquisition story is the tale of the hunt—the planning, the hunt itself and the successful conclusion, made even more memorable if the object was acquired at a bargain. Acquisition stories easily become distorted in the telling. It is in the teller’s interest to enhance the story, a polite phrase for playing loose with the truth. A good acquisition story is an adventure story filled with setbacks, false trails, trials and tribulations, and unexpected twists and turns. Since the teller is referring to a specific object, the end result is always positive.

Two of my favorite acquisition stories happened early in my career. In 1977, when I moved to Hellertown, Pennsylvania, to take care of my mother prior to her death in February 1978, I brought with me a collection of Frakturs I acquired while living in York, Pennsylvania.

When my mother saw them, she remarked, “I did not know you were interested in that sort of thing. There is a bunch of them in Annie’s (my mother’s stepmother) attic.”

My mother and I paid a visit. We returned home with Prosser, Knoble and Seiple printed Fraktur birth and baptismal, confirmation and marriage certificates.

The second story also involves my mother. My mother delivered medication and other supplies for Prosser’s Drug store, owned by her brother Earl. When she visited customers, I instructed her to keep her eyes and ears open. If a customer had any antiques for sale, she was to call and let me know.

One day the telephone rang. “Would you be interested in a tall case clock? The Grubes are moving, and there is no room for it in the moving van.”

I told my mother to stop talking and go back and buy it. The thirty-hour tall case clock was by a New Brunswick, New Jersey, clockmaker named White, the only example known. The clock had an unusual history. It was given to the oldest daughter in the family on the day of her marriage. The Grubes had no children.  Hence, they had no compulsions about selling the clock. Every time I walk by the clock, now located at Linda’s and my condo in Altamonte Springs, Florida, I am reminded of this story. It always evokes a smile.

Not every acquisition story is a memorable one. In fact, most are not. It is the other stories, such as who owned the piece or what role did the piece play in history, that most fascinate me today.

The link between an object and those who owned it previously is usually lost. When buying an antique or collectible from a dealer, the dealer is reluctant to share how he/she acquired the object or provide a link to the person or family who sold it. Dealers are extremely hesitant to reveal their sources.

This is in direct opposition to the value concept that the more that is known about an object, the higher its perceived value. Dealers focus on touting an object’s manufacturing and marketing history, its aesthetics, importance within the collecting scheme of things, and decorative/conversation value. This allows them to avoid ownership provenance. Who cares about dead people? I do.

My Hopalong Cassidy collection included cap guns and cap gun/holster sets. I bought them only if the seller could provide me a picture of the child wearing them. This portion of my Hoppy collection was small, but I was proud of it. In several cases, I located the child and interviewed him or her. These personal stories made the cap guns extra special.

After a hiatus of several decades, I have started to work again on my family genealogy. Thus far I have found seven ancestors who fought in the American Revolution, six on the American side and one for the Hessians. Older and wiser, my goal is to look beyond the birth, marriage and death dates. I want to recreate the personal history of each of my ancestors so that they are more than just a name on a tombstone.

As a Fraktur collector, I expended a great deal of time and effort in attempting to trace the family roots and modern descendents of the names on the birth and baptismal certificates in my collection. Thanks to the growing information on the Internet, this is now a much easier task. Give me a name associated with an object and chances are better than even that I will be able to recreate the family genealogy.

No collector ever stops buying. I am no exception. The sale of the things I left behind in Pennsylvania has provided me with funds to keep buying. Since the storage space in Linda’s and my Kentwood home is almost filled to capacity, size is a limiting factor in what I can buy. The size issue is manageable. I narrowed my collecting focus by concentrating on buying objects with a strong family ownership or collector providence that I can research or documents that have strong historical content.

Barb Jersey of Wonder Woman Estate Sales brought me a framed American sampler that had a partial family provenance written on the back. It failed to sell for $450.00 on the first day and $225.00 on the second day at one of Barb’s estate sales. When I saw it, I informed her that the sampler would be worth $450.00 or more if she could establish the location of the young lady who made it. A line on the sampler read, “Wrought by Betsey M. Brown.”

“I do not have the time,” Barb replied.

I told Barb I would buy the sampler and do the research. When Barb asked me to share my findings, I told her I would be glad to do so but with the understanding that she could not buy it back.

It took me less than an hour to trace the family genealogy. The sampler was made by Betsey Melissa [Brown] Edgerton (1819-1847) between the ages of 8 and 13 (1827-1832) who lived in Pawlet, Rutland County, Vermont. Betsey Brown, daughter of Milton and Eunice [Guild] Brown, married Marson Edgerton on October 24, 1839. I did not have to leave my office to discover this. The information was available on the Internet.

Recently, I instructed the jewelry dealers with whom I work to add pieces to Linda’s collection of Victorian Era jewelry that I will pay a premium when they can offer pieces that can be traced back to their period owners. In my collection of Victorian men’s jewelry, I have a stickpin and links featuring the Anheuser Bush “A” logo. They came with an Anheuser Bush family provenance.

I have hundreds of objects at my Kentwood home on my “do-the-research” pile. I want to learn what role they played at the time of their creation and/or their historical significance. At the top of the list is a collection of lithograph posters of French chateaus. I assumed they were related to an automobile tour of France. I paused for a few minutes during the writing of this column and did a quick Internet search. I found they may be French railroad rather than automobile related. I placed solving this riddle as the first item on my 2015 New Year’s resolutions.

Eventually, the pursuit of the complete story will take Linda and me to France. We need to visit the chateaus to see which remain and which do not. This pursuit will add another story to the posters, but, I suspect, not the last.

There is no end to the stories an object can tell. These stories are limited only by the owner’s imagination, his/her ability to ask questions about the object and making a commit to do the research, no matter where it leads. Not every research trail will result in a Da Vinci Code-type story. All will be an adventure, a journey to places beyond where the collector has gone before. Although I have had more than my fair share of antiques and collectibles adventures, I have no desire or intention of stopping. You should not either.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Selected letters will be answered in this column. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI  49512. You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.

You can listen and participate in Whatcha Got?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8 and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. If you cannot find it on a station in your area, Whatcha Got? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com. Sell, Keep Or Toss?: How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, and Appraise Personal Property (House of Collectibles, an imprint of Random House Information Group, $17.99), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via www.harryrinker.com. Copyright © Harry L. Rinker, LLC 2014

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